Scottish politics has been consistently volatile in recent years, moving between incompetence scandals, corruption scandals and even criminal scandals among the most prominent political figures. Despite all this turmoil, the central political question for the country remains whether it seeks independence from the United Kingdom.
However, all of this domestic turmoil could obscure the most momentous aspect of Scottish independence – that it would be a geopolitical disaster for the United Kingdom, the United States and Scotland itself. The independence of Scotland would effectively neutralize Britain’s military and diplomatic power on a global scale, depriving the United States of one of its most important allies, an ally that remains an important pillar of the United States’ defense structure.
If Scotland were to leave the UK, the UK would mess up its nuclear deterrent as Faslane, the royal naval base where the Trident nuclear submarines are located, is in Scotland. The Scottish National Party (SNP) has pledged to shut down this base when Scotland becomes independent, and there is no place on the coast of England that would be suitable for a replacement base.
At the same time, the British heartland on the island of Great Britain would become a disputed area should Scotland find alliances with powers hostile to Great Britain and the United States. The prospect of Paris and Edinburgh joining forces to form the Auld Alliance is of course no longer the threat it once was. But small, desperate countries can have surprisingly radical policies, as Scotland has shown.
Shortly thereafter, Britain’s role and position in the global institutional order would be called into question. Britain’s permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council could be violently and credibly challenged by hostile incumbent members like Russia or emerging powers like India. And while the UK would be busy reorganizing its entire defensive stance and its ability to reflect its new circumstances, its ability to project any kind of military or diplomatic power internationally to withstand any of these developments would be virtually nonexistent . Think of the efforts Brexit made to consume Britain’s energy for years and then multiply it many times over.
Scotland, for its part, will find itself in an even more fragile position, both strategically and fiscally. Thanks to its sparsely dispersed and expensive population, around 9 percent of Scottish public spending is subsidized directly by the UK government. With that subsidy gone, Scotland would not only have difficulty building its own defense infrastructure quickly, but it would also have to look for virtually any international partner eligible for funding and investment to fill the gap and a likely political backlash contain the SNP.
This vulnerability provides an opportunity for countries that are hostile to the United Kingdom and the United States, such as China and Russia, to be most likely an opportunity to exert influence and make cash. This is not just academic speculation. The SNP is already uncomfortably close to the Kremlin; Former SNP leader Alex Salmond, practically the father of the modern independence movement in Scotland implicated in the current power struggle within the party, has long aired a political television program on RT, one of Moscow’s main propaganda outlets, while he English speaks language Sputnik Radio is also headquartered in Edinburgh.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise: the Kremlin will fund and signal anyone who would undermine the strength of the Western Alliance, from Scotland to Catalonia to any nationalist political force in Europe opposed to Washington and the European Union. Such connections are particularly evident among Scottish nationalists. At least it means that the first government of an independent Scotland will already have a much stronger relationship with Moscow than with Washington. That alone should set off the alarms in the White House.
And where the Kremlin already has political ties, China will come in with money capable of outbidding everyone else on that front, and with an already established and refined method of checkbook diplomacy aimed at helping its “trading partners” to seduce and bend them to Beijing’s geopolitical blueprints. If China were to finance and build a large port in Scotland, as it did in Sri Lanka and Djibouti, it would already be a critical hole in the United States’ North Atlantic defense umbrella.
Could the United States move in as both Scotland and Britain’s closest partner? Absolutely. And the rest of the UK would need Washington’s backup by default – and offer little in return. But in Scotland it would be an uphill battle. In addition to the existing links with the Kremlin, Washington’s proximity to London would be viewed as suspicious. Culturally, Scotland is much more oriented towards the European social democratic model than the Anglo-Saxon political and economic model, so there would be an inherent resistance to the real and perceived expectations of the United States for a close economic relationship. In addition, it is extremely unlikely that the United States would or could offer direct monetary benefits from a political perspective, as it would in China.
For these reasons, it will be an extremely difficult and costly task to mitigate the effects of independence once it has occurred. And that’s why the independence scenario is a lose-lose scenario for everyone: Washington, London and the people of Scotland. It will only be one opportunity for Moscow and Beijing. And Moscow and Beijing are only interested in opportunities that are solely in their own interests, not the interests of anyone in Scotland or anyone in the western world.
From Washington’s perspective, the time and resources that would be wasted in efforts to mitigate the geopolitical effects of Scottish independence have any chance of completely derailing what Washington really needs to do: the Western Alliance after the Trump years rebuild the damage caused.
US President Joe Biden is already well aware of the importance of this project. The global power of the USA is in a downward spiral due to the US alliance system, which dissolved after the Second World War, which not only has consequences for the interests of the USA, but also for its security. From climate change to the global spread of political instability to the resulting waves of mass migration, the effects of the decline in US leadership over the past decade have been most clearly visible in the Old World, but they have already begun to settle in significant proportions on the shores of the US to wash off.
The only way to stem the tide of chaos caused by former US President Donald Trump’s global power vacuum is for the United States to rebuild a new and hopefully improved global rules-based order again guaranteed by the US military becomes power and support through the US-led network of alliances that have held the free world together since World War II.
The United Kingdom, in its current form, has been a crucial hub in this alliance network from the start and has remained so to this day. It is the only great ally who has steadfastly subscribed to this model of the world during the Trump years, and as other traditional allies like the Europeans, the Japanese, and even Israel, have begun to see their own interests as further removed from Washington. The prospect of Scottish independence, however, threatens to render Britain powerless and thus useless for this project of global reconstruction, precisely at this critical point where it is most urgently needed.
Because of this, the Biden government needs to watch closely what is happening to separatism tendencies in Britain, more than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Due to his proximity to Ireland, Biden is already closely monitoring the consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland. And he has already made a very useful intervention on this issue when, during the presidential campaign, he threatened to block a future trade deal with the UK should the UK leave the EU in a way that threatens the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Ireland.
Biden and his government must respond equally to the real and imminent threat posed by Scotland. But Biden would have a distinct advantage in dealing personally with the subject: Trump was loathed by the people of Scotland, while Biden’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement is widely known and respected. Biden would come to this conversation with a very large pool of credibility and political capital – and the Scottish people would give him a fair hearing. That can make all the difference to the future of Scotland, the UK and the Western Alliance.